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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Even as challenges mount, Europeans stick by Ukraine

The funeral of a Ukrainian soldier who was killed last month by Russian artillery was held on Thursday in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

By Jason Horowitz and Catherine Porter

The high cost of living is provoking strikes, protests and widespread grumbling. Talk about nuclear weapons has heightened anxieties and encouraged some to demand rapid negotiations. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is wooing politicians, including many from populist parties on the right and the left who have flirted with him in the past.

But while Putin may have bet on European fatigue and intolerance for hardship to divide the alliance and buckle its weakest members, more than eight months into Russia’s war on Ukraine, the scale of the challenges has been leveraged effectively by leaders to stiffen the public spine and Europe is holding firm.

Despite some kicking and screaming, governments across the ideological spectrum and the continent — in Western and Eastern Europe, in the Baltics and along the Mediterranean — are maintaining support for Ukraine and tough sanctions on Russia.

While recent polls show a slight dip in popular support for Ukraine across Europe, backing still remains strong, and the leaders of Germany, France and Italy — the continent’s three largest countries — seem insulated against external and internal pressures to cave for the foreseeable future, as they have all recently had elections.

Many analysts believe that commitment will last as long as the United States holds the line, but gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections by Republicans, some of whom have questioned the cost of the war, could alter those expectations. Most of those pushing for immediate peace or a reembrace of Putin are for now sequestered in the political opposition.

“Of course we want to achieve peace, that’s the goal for everybody, but it’s impossible to achieve this goal, peace, without justice,” Antonio Tajani, Italy’s new foreign minister, said in a brief interview in his office Wednesday.

“If you want peace,” he added, “you need to strengthen Ukraine.”

How long such resolve will last remains the lingering question, especially with the uneasy realization that the war will stretch through winter, and most likely beyond, pushing Europeans into a new world of security threats and economic uncertainty.

But many Europeans are girding themselves for the challenge.

“Putin is a dictator. He’s attacking all of the European Union. I find it intolerable,” said Tristan Malinas, 28, a roofing apprentice, who sat watching his 3-year-old daughter ride an antique carousel during a midweek holiday in Paris. “The European Union was created for peace. He is trying to destroy that.”

Like him, many French have accepted President Emmanuel Macron’s depiction of the war as an existential battle, directly threatening peace and democracies built carefully since World War II and reinforced by the creation of NATO and the European Union. Many also worry that Russia’s targets will expand, bringing the war closer to their own doorsteps.

“In France, there’s a strong concern if we don’t stop Putin here, he will continue — next will be Poland or the Baltic nations. He will eventually destabilize all of Europe,” said Jérôme Fourquet, one of France’s leading pollsters, whose firm, IFOP, has shown support for sanctions against Russia and for Ukraine in general still around 70%.

Few French believe the Russian argument that the war was pushed by NATO and the United States, he added. “For the great majority of French people, there is no debate,” he said. “It’s clear that Ukraine is the victim and Russia the attacker.”

A new survey by eupinions, a platform for European public opinion by the polling foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung, found that 57% of Europeans, down from 60% in the summer and 64% in March, still support sending arms to Ukraine.

“The French simply don’t have the right to say that they are fed up with the war,” said Florence Habay, 50, playing with her two sons in Paris’ Bastille district.

The rise in gas prices has spelled the end of the family’s weekend trips to a country home. But it seemed a small price to pay compared with what is happening on the Ukrainian battlefields, she said.

But there are still signs that European resolve could yet soften under the weight of the economic toll and fears of a wider war or the use of nuclear weapons.

Some elements in the Social Democratic Party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz are also showing signs of gravitating back toward rapprochement with Russia.

Rolf Mützenich, the head of the party’s parliamentary group, accused the foreign minister of not doing more to find a diplomatic solution, and argued that there needed to be a “balance” between the Ukrainian right to self-defense and the need for diplomacy.

That feeling is simmering around Europe, though for now, it is relegated to the opposition.

“There are two camps now in Europe,” George Katrougalos, the former Greek foreign minister of the country’s main opposition Syriza party, said in a recent interview. “The camp of justice and the camp of peace.”

“The camp of justice says, now, whatever, Russia must be punished and we cannot have an end of the war, at least until Russia is defeated completely,” he added. “I don’t believe this is feasible for a nuclear power. So I’m supporting the other idea. The idea of peace.”

But Greece’s government has been staunchly in support of Ukraine, as has Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. In an interview before taking power last month, she said she would “totally” continue to send offensive arms to Ukraine.

But Meloni’s coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi, was quoted this past week saying a peace process depended on Ukraine understanding that at a certain point, “it can no longer count on arms and help.”

Tajani, a member of Berlusconi’s party, said that what mattered was not what Berlusconi said in private, but how he voted in public, and that he had consistently backed Ukraine.

“This for a politician is important, what we do,” Tajani said, adding, in an apparent show of institutional, and internal-party, strength, “My position is very clear.”

He said the government would “follow the European decisions” when it came to sending arms to Ukraine. Those small Italian arms shipments, while inconsequential on the battlefield, have become a political issue in a country with the lowest support in Europe for arms deliveries, fewer than 40%, according to eupinions.

A large peace rally Saturday in Rome included the center-left establishment as well as populists opposed to arming Ukraine and a variety of pacifist and Roman Catholic groups.

Prominent among them was Giuseppe Conte, the former prime minister and now leader of the populist Five Star Movement, who, to rebuild his party from the left, has blamed a “bellicose push” by NATO and the European Union for the continuance of the war.

While Conte has for months adopted a pacifist line, the participation in the march of the center-left Democratic Party, which was a strong supporter of Ukraine in the prior government, surprised many.

“It’s nauseating,” said Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, who considered the step a blatant political play to chase Five Star voters rather than a change of heart on Ukraine.

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